Beginning amateur astronomers often rush out and buy a telescope. For many reasons this is not a great idea. Buying a telescope takes a little research. Buying a good telescope is an investment in a great hobby that can last a lifetime. Buying a piece of junk off the shelf at Wal-Mart will result in a piece of junk sitting in your garage for an eternity or until the next yard sale.
Surprising to many would be amateur astronomers is that many things in the night sky are visible without a telescope. Some things are far better to see in a set of binoculars. Wide views that come with the use of a set of binoculars is preferable for viewing things such as star clusters, some galaxies such as Andromeda, and in many cases the moon. Other objects can be viewed in binoculars but without the enhanced size that you get from the various eyepieces that can be substituted into a telescope. Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon are very visible in any regular pair of binoculars. All are visible, in fact, to the naked eye. In fact some nebulae are visible to the naked eye. The Orion nebula looks like a wispy little cloud at the belt of Orion but in binoculars or a telescope it is more clear that it is not a cloud at all.
The first thing that any amateur astronomer should set out to learn is the various constellations. This is not because constellations are cool to learn about themselves. They aren't. But being able to find the various constellations gives you the ability to also find other objects in the night sky in relation to the position of those constellations. On various astronomy sites on the net you can often find event calendars that indicate that you can find a particular comet in the constellation of so and so this month or that you can find some other important object this month in a particular area of the sky.
Granted, many of the newer telescopes have computer indexes in them now and these can find objects for you. That is great but not always a viable option. Sometimes you will want to take a scope somewhere out away from town (unless you live away from a major city) to get a better view that isn't washed away by light pollution. Having access to electricity may not be an option. It never hurts to learn how to find things without the computer.
Buying telescopes is an important consideration. Before spending the money learn a little about them. Do not rush out to the local department store and buy some junk off the shelf. You will be wasting your money. Many of the store telescopes have huge lettering on them with wonderful sounding promises about getting views of planets at 10x or 50x or 100x the naked eye or some other nonsense. It is just salesmanship.
ALL TELESCOPES ALLOW YOU TO CHANGE EYEPIECES AND MAGNIFY THE IMAGE.
That's right. All of them do. Well, ok, there may be some department store telescopes that are so horrible that you cannot even change the eyepiece but I have never heard of one like that. The point here is this. It is not the telescope or even the size of the telescope that determines how big the image is in your eyepiece. It is your eyepiece that you select that determines how big the image is in your eyepiece. The telescope's aperature (size of the opening at the end of the scope) determines clarity of the image.
So in essence a bigger scope is a better scope (in very general terms) but for a different reason entirely. If you want a clearer image of that object in your eyepiece a bigger scope can (should) deliver one. However, one other point should be noted. When you step up the size of the image by using a higher magnification eyepiece you lose clarity when you do so. It is very much a trade off.
There are two major telescope makers out there that make serious amateur telescopes and a number of smaller telescope makers that make good (but very expensive) telescopes for very serious amateurs. There is one low cost Internet based telescope provider that also makes some reasonably good products at good prices.
The best known, and most widely distributed, telescope maker is Meade. They make many low cost telescopes and also make some extremely expensive scopes for more serious amateurs with money to burn. Celestron is a close second and also has a wide variety of very good telescopes. I personally own a Celestron C-8 which is a fairly serious amateur scope.
Orion is the company that I mentioned that has a nice site on the net for buying scopes that are fairly good and reasonably priced. In my personal opinion the Meade and the Celestron scopes are a bit better but they cost more so make your own choice based upon the funds you have at your disposal.
I would steer clear of any other telescope maker out there. Period. There are some good scope makers out there but most are far more expensive for what you get. There are some really lousy ones out there as well. You can hardly go wrong with a scope made by any of the three I mentioned above.
There are several types of scopes out there as well:
1. Refractors - this is the type most people think of when they think of a telescope. The viewer looks through one end of the scope and out the other.
2. Reflectors - this is the odd looking scope where the viewer looks into an eyepiece on the side of the scope but the scope itself points at the object in the sky.
3. Schmidt Cassegrain - these are serious amateur scopes that look like very short but very wide versions of the refractor. Actually they are not like a refractor at all. Virtually all of the serious amateurs use a scope like this for at least some of the time and many of the photographs you see in astronomy magazines come from these types of scopes.
4. Dobsonian - these are the gigantic "light bucket" type scopes that are often seen in the astronomy magazines. They can be impressive because for the dollar you spend on a scope you can get a much bigger dobsonian than you can any other type of scope. They are cheaper to make. However, the big drawback is that they do not come on an equitorial mount and do not have any kind of electronic tracking motors on them. It is possible to get some kind of tracking motor for them but it is not going to be sufficient for anything other than viewing. Photography though a dobsonian type scope is going to be very limited and very difficult.
Astronomy is a great hobby but it can be an expensive one as well. Know what you are getting into before taking the plunge. You can get a very good but very limited telescope for a few hundred dollars that will be fine for viewing a great number of planets, the moon, a few bright nebulae and some other objects but will be inadequate for viewing some other objects. It will also be inadequate for serious photography. For serious photography anything less than an 8" schmidt type scope is probably going to result in very disappointing pictures. Photography through the scope is a complex subject and I will address that in another article. But suffice it to say that if you plan to take pictures plan on spending some money too.